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From “Master” to “Loser”: Changing Working-Class Cultural Identity in Contemporary China*

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  24 September 2015

Ju Li*
Central European University, Hungary


This article explores how the prolonged and erosive deindustrialization in China's struggling state-owned enterprises (SOE), an inevitable result of the neoliberal shift in industrialization policy from socialist import-substitution industrialization to globalized export-oriented industrialization, has changed workers’ perceptions of themselves and their work. Based on in-depth interviews with workers and participant observation in one enterprise—Nanfang Steel—this study describes how what it means to be a worker has changed over two generations of SOE workers. The “glorious” identity of the worker, promoted by the state during the Maoist era, and emphatically proclaimed by elder workers despite its internal limitations and contradictions, has been dismantled by the neoliberal reform and has instead metamorphosed into a newly developed and “stigma-laden” cultural identity created by contemporary hegemonic discourse and then bitterly internalized by currently employed younger workers.

Copyright © International Labor and Working-Class History, Inc. 2015 

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My greatest appreciation goes to these senior workers in Nanfang who warmly and trustfully shared their stories with me. I would like to thank Mahua Sarkar especially for her insightful comments. I am also grateful to Frederic Deyo, Leslie Gates, John Chaffee, and József Böroöcz for their encouragement during my writing process of this paper. I also thank the editors and the anonymous reviewers of ILWCH for their constructive comments. Finally, I wish to acknowledge the generous support of the institute of IGK at Humboldt University, Berlin.



1. See, for example, Anita Chan, China's Workers Under Assault: The Exploitation of Labor in a Globalizing Economy (Armonk, 2001); John Hassard, Jackie Sheehan, Meixiang Zhou, Jane Terpstra-Tong, and Jonathan Morris, eds., Chinese State Enterprise Reform: From Marx to the Market (London, 2007); Hassard, John, Morris, Jonathan, Sheehan, Jackie, and Yuxin, Xiao, “China's State-Owned Enterprises: Economic Reform and Organizational Restructuring,” Journal of Organizational Change Management 23 (2010): 500–16CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Sarosh Kuruvilla, Ching Kwan Lee, and Mary E. Gallagher, eds., From Iron Rice Bowl to Informalization: Markets, Workers, and the State in a Changing China (Ithaca, NY, 2011).

2. To protect the interviewees in this study, I use Nanfang Steel as an anonymous name for my case factory.

3. For a detailed history of the Third Front Construction, see Ju Li, All that is Solid Melts into Air: An Exploration of the Transformation Process of a Third-front Enterprise in China (Ph.D. diss., Binghamton University, 2012); also Chen, Donglin, “From ‘the Plan of Food, Clothing and Daily Necessities’ to ‘Preparing the War’—the Changing Process of the Third-Fifth Thoughts,” Contemporary Chinese History Research 2 (1997): 6575 Google Scholar.

4. For an illustration of the restructuring process in NS, see Li, All that is Solid.

5. See, for example, Cai, Yongshun, “The Resistance of Chinese Laid-Off Workers in the Reform Period,” The China Quarterly 170 (2002): 327–44CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Mary Elizabeth Gallagher, Contagious Capitalism: Globalization and the Politics of Labor in China (Princeton, NJ, 2005); Ching Kwan Lee, “Pathways of Labor Insurgency,” in Chinese Society: Change, Conflict and Resistance, ed. E. J. Perry and M. Selden (London, 2000), 41–46; Lee, Ching Kwan, “From the Specter of Mao to the Spirit of the Law: Labor Insurgency in China,” Theory and Society 31 (2002): 189228 CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Martin Hart-Landsberg and Paul Burkett, China and Socialism: Market Reforms and Class Struggle (New York, 2005); Chen, Feng, “Privatization and its Discontents in Chinese Factories,” The China Quarterly 185 (2006): 4260 CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Ching Kwan Lee, Against the Law: Labor Protests in China's Rustbelt and Sunbelt (Berkeley, CA, 2007); Thomas B. Gold, William J. Hurst, Jaeyoun Won, and Qiang Li, eds., Laid-Off Workers in a Workers’ State: Unemployment with Chinese Characteristics (New York, 2009); Hurst, William, “The Chinese Worker after Socialism,” The China Quarterly 198 (2009): 459493 Google Scholar..

6. See, for example, George Dyer and Richard McGregor, “China's Champions,” Financial Times, (March 16, 2008); OECD Economic Surveys: China 2010, OECD; Xu Yi-chong, The Political Economy of State-owned Enterprises in China and India (London, 2012).

7. Chan, Anita and Unger, Jonathan, “A Chinese State Enterprise under the Reforms: What Model of Capitalism?The China Journal 62 (2009): 126, 2CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

8. Yangyan Song, “Thirty Years of SOE Reform: How it Relates to the Fate of National Economy and the General Reform,” Economic Information, September 19, 2008.

9. Li, All that is Solid.

10. Chan, China's Workers Under Assault.

11. Dorothy J. Solinger, “The New Crowd of the Dispossessed: The Shift of the Urban Proletariat from Master to Mendicant,” in State and Society in 21st Century China: Contention, Change and Legitimation ed. Peter Gries and Stanley Rosen (New York, 2004), 50–66; Hart-Landsberg and Burkett, China and Socialism; Timothy B. Weston, “The Iron Man Weeps: Joblessness and Political Legitimacy in the Chinese Rust Belt,” in State and Society in 21st Century China: Crisis, Contention and Legitimation, ed. Peter Gries and Stanley Rosen (New York, 2004), 67–86.

12. See, for example, Cai, “The Resistance”; Yongshun Cai, State and Laid-Off Workers in Reform China: The Silence and Collective Action of the Retrenched (London, 2006); Lee, Against the Law; M. Pei, “Rights and Resistance: The Changing Contexts of the Dissident Movement,” in Chinese Society: Change, Conflict, and Resistance, ed. E. Perry and M. Selden (London, 2003), 31–56; William Hurst and Kevin J. O'Brien, “China's Contentious Pensioners,” The China Quarterly 170 (2002): 345–60.

13. Hurst, The Chinese Worker.

14. Lee, Against the Law.

15. Guo, Yang and Hu, Angang, “The Administration Monopoly, Rent-Seeking and Corruption—An Analysis of Corruption during the Transitional Economy” (in Chinese), Comparative Economic & Social Systems 2 (2003), 6169 Google Scholar; Huang, Qunhui, “The New Characteristics of Management Corruption and the New Stage of SOE Reform” (in Chinese), Industrial Economy in China 11 (2006), 5259 Google Scholar.

16. Solinger, “The New Crowd of the Dispossessed,” 23.

17. Li, Ju, “Fight Silently: Everyday Resistance in Surviving State Owned Enterprises in Contemporary China,” Global Labour Journal 3 (2012): 194216 CrossRefGoogle Scholar. In this article, Li describes how the urgency of survival and the denial of alternative work opportunities have effectively prevented any form of collective resistance on the part of NS workers. Though there is great resentment and even hatred toward the management in their minds, the workers at NS are far from militant. Rather, they are generally compliant—at least ostensibly. Their resistance manifests in much more subdued, spontaneous, and individualized ways: backstage rumors and curses, apathy, foot-dragging, feigned ignorance, pilferage, and so on—the typical “weapons of the weak.”

18. Song, “Thirty Years of SOE Reform.”

19. Hurst, The Chinese Worker, 16–36.

20. Reay, Diane, “A New Social Class Paradigm: Bridging Individual and Collective, Cultural and Economic in Class Theory,” Sociology 38 (2011): 9851003 Google Scholar.

21. Michael Burawoy and János Lukács, The Radiant Past: Ideology and Reality in Hungary's Road to Capitalism (Chicago, 1992).

22. Alexei Yurchak, Everything Was Forever, Until It Was No More: The Last Soviet Generation (Princeton, NJ, 2005), 28.

23. For examples of how socialist workers using this ideal to fight for their rights, see Li, All that is Solid; also, Lee, Against the Law.

24. Among many others, see Randy Hodson, Dignity at Work (Cambridge, 2001); Michele Lamont, The Dignity of Working Men: Morality and the Boundaries of Race, Class, and Immigration (Cambridge, MA, 2000); Jeremy Rifkin, The End of Work: The Decline of the Global Labor Force and the Dawn of the Post-market Era (New York, 1995); Andrew Sayer, The Moral Significance of Class (Cambridge, 2005); Richard Sennett. The Corrosion of Character: The Personal Consequences of Work in the New Capitalism (New York, 2011).

25. Sennett, The Corrosion of Character.

26. Alessandro Portelli, “What Makes Oral History Different,” in The Oral History Reader, ed. Robert Perks and Alistair Thomson (London, 1998), 63–74, 68.

27. Sarkar, Mahua, “Between Craft and Method: Meaning and Inter-subjectivity in Oral History Analysis,” Journal of Historical Sociology 25 (2012): 584CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

28. Mahua Sarkar, Visible Histories, Disappearing Women: Producing Muslim Womanhood in Late Colonial Bengal (Durham and London, 2008).

29. Karl Polanyi, The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time (Boston, 2001), 81–9.

30. Lee, Against the Law.

31. For an illustration of such failure, see Miklos Haraszti, A Worker in a Workers’ State (New York, 1978).

32. Sennett, The Corrosion of Character.

33. Ibid.

34. Among many others, see Bian, Yanjie, “Chinese Social Stratification and Social Mobility,” Annual Review of Sociology 28 (2002): 91116 CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Li, Yi, “The Structure and Evolution of Chinese Social Stratification,” Social Forces 87 (2005): 4Google Scholar.

35. Richard Sennett and Jonathan Cobb, The Hidden Injuries of Class (New York, 1972), 72.

36. Ibid.

37. Blecher, Marc J., “Hegemony and Workers’ Politics in China,” The China Quarterly 170 (2002): 283303 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

38. Sennett and Cobb, The Hidden Injuries, 58.

39. Ibid., 248.

40. James Ferguson, Expectations of Modernity: Myths and Meanings of Urban Life on the Zambian Copperbelt. (Berkeley, CA, 1999), 236.

41. “Education Level of Young Migrant Workers Raised,” China Daily, October 10, 2011, (accessed April 20, 2013).

42. Austin Ramzy, “The Chinese Worker,” Time, December 16, 2009,,28804,1946375_1947252_1947256,00.html(accessed October 10, 2012).

43. Harrison, Bennett, “The Dark Side of Flexible Production,” National Productivity Review 13 (1994): 479501 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

44. “Chinese Firms to Move Overseas Due to Rising Costs,”, October 22, 2012, July 21, 2013); “Adidas to Quit China for Southeast Asia amid Rising Costs,”, July 19, 2012, September 15, 2013).

45. Ferguson, Expectations of Modernity, 123–65.

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